How a high school education program plan looks on paper and how it plays out in practice is a process that can become fraught in the best of times. Throw COVID in as that program launches and things can get very messy, very quickly.
At least, they could if captained by anyone other than Special Education Transition Teacher Holly Huggins…
“The Special Education administration team knew there was a need for the Transition Program,” said Kara Brechwald, PCSD’s Special Education Teacher Leader.
Brechwald described that there are a number of students who have great skill sets in many areas - who are excellent contributors - and who need individualized support to help them get set up for success.
The answer: to create a new pathway, the Park City High School Transition Program for the students progressing to work in the community. The leader hired to bring it to life was Holly Huggins, who was raised in Park City and graduated from PCHS herself.
“We did our best to individualize, but we didn’t have this specific teacher dedicated to this wonderful meaningful curriculum,” Brechwald continued. “Holly has implemented it.”
And under Huggins’ stewardship, which started in her first year of teaching (in 2019), it became so much more than simply putting a plan into practice…
“What is amazing about Holly is that she is growth-minded,” Brechwald continued. “She constantly asks, ‘How can I make this better for the students? How can I make their outcomes better?’ And that’s not only with what they’re doing - but their attitude and how they’re approaching the work.”
The 4 PCHS Special Education teachers currently support about 100 students. Within the department, there are three programs: Resource, Transition, and Essential Elements.
10th - 12th graders take some or all of Holly’s Transition classes, which include functional math; career exploration; community access and resources; and life skills. The topics run the gamut, from dealing with utilities and voting, to taking the bus and securing a job.
“A lot of what I do is informed by my students,” Holly said. “I love getting to individualize this for students. I never would have thought about teaching the stock market - but students kept coming to me and asking about investing. It is part of participating in society - so now it’s part of what I teach!”
Holly’s dedication to individual attention has been life-changing for many of her students… including Ava Jennings, who graduated from PCHS in 2022.
“I’d heard of Aggies Elevated at Utah State, and then, we were gifted here with someone who had first-hand knowledge of the ins and outs,” said Kristen Jennings, Ava’s mother (who also happens to be Park City High School’s nurse).
“Holly helped Ava apply - and it has impacted Ava’s life tremendously. She lives in a dorm and goes to classes and has the support to have a typical college experience.”
The opportunity to have a “typical” experience has become “typical” for Holly’s students…
All of her students - all of them! - graduate, get jobs, or move on to higher education.
The PCHS Transition Program graduated its first cohort in May of 2022 - with a 100% graduation rate and a 100% employment rate. Many now attend college at University of Utah, Utah State, Weber State, Salt Lake Community College, and Utah Tech University. And for three years in a row - since the program started - every single person who is in the transition program will have paid work experience.
Holly loves the work for many reasons - and said her own experience provided helpful insight. After she graduated, Holly moved to Washington D.C. and started work that wasn’t meaningful to her.
“I was thinking about my transition from high school, and how it can be in the world,” Holly said. “At the end of the day, I realized it was about the kids I helped as a peer tutor, and how much I enjoyed getting to know them.”
After conversations with her mom, Laura, a Special Education teacher at Ecker Hill Middle School (Holly calls her “my hero”) and Kara Brechwald, with whom she had a terrific relationship from her time at PCHS, Holly decided to make her move.
“I studied Special Education at the AMAZING Utah State University,” Holly reflected. “I graduated in 2019 and got hired to start this program at PCHS – just in time for COVID to hit. That was really tough - I’m pretty proud that I’m still here.”
And despite that (huge) wrinkle, Holly has built the Transition Program from the ground up. With her guidance, it has reached remarkable heights. Next, as the district works on realignment, freshmen get to join the program a year earlier.
“We help them figure out a four year vision, which has been fun. It helps me get to know them better, which is really helpful as they start looking for jobs. Some students turn 16 early in 10th grade and they want jobs right away.”
And it’s about so much more than simply getting that one job, Brechwald emphasized.
“Not only are they employed in their field of choice,” she said, “they’ve developed the skills to advance within their employment - become full time employees and/or and or managers.
“Another benefit is knowing how to change jobs - this is a big piece for people with disabilities. The ability to know what to do next if a job ends or if, as so many people do, they discover they want to do something different. Holly really teaches them flexibility and how to go through all the steps.”
It’s not just the students who are guided and inspired by Holly. As she led the way to Nurse Kristen Jennings’ office, each colleague had an exclamation about how terrific she is.
“15 years ago, if you would have asked me where my daughter would be today,” said Jennings, “this is a totally different outcome than what I ever would have expected. I’m extremely proud and grateful for Holly’s influence. Ava is learning things at college that she never would have while living in our home - from time management and social things and being totally independent - she has grown up so much.”
For Holly, her incredible impact is just the way it is.
“I like getting to know my students and helping them,” Holly said. “We are all on a journey and it’s really cool to see their confidence grow as they get jobs and earn money to buy their own things.”
Holly’s implementation of the Transition Program didn’t surprise Kara Brechwald - and her success is something she would never take for granted…
“When I say she lives the vision - she lives the vision. She celebrates her students’ contributions in a positive way that meets their interests and strengths. It feeds them. Because of Holly, the Transition Program provides attachments to things that will impact so many lives, long after high school.”
PCEF and Special Education by the numbers:
- 5 Classroom Grants awarded for 2022/23 School Year
- 9 Classroom Grants awarded for 2020/21 & 2021/22 School Year
- 6 Express Grants awarded in 2020-2021 School Year
- 13 Emergency Express Grants awarded in Spring 2020